A Town Was Engulfed in Flames, but One Church Still Stands Today

It really is a miracle that people can still worship here.

lighting candleYasu+Junko for Reader's Digest

The church shouldn’t be there, but every Sunday, parishioner John Mayernick goes anyway.

He opens the door that shouldn’t be standing, walks past the pews that should have burned, and mounts the stairs to the balcony that should have been razed. As sunlight pours through the stained glass windows and gleams off the gilt-trimmed icons, he grabs three ropes and rings the bells as Mass begins and the congregation sings the hymns no one thought they’d hear again.

This is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary church in Centralia, Pennsylvania. In 1962, an underground mine caught fire, its fumes and heat slowly choking the town. Over the next 20-some years, all but five of its citizens up and left. The government flattened most of the homes and storefronts before the fire could. Today, where generations of miners once raised families, there are only a few stretches of sidewalks to nowhere. More than 56 years later, the fire is still smoldering belowground.

But thanks to an accident of geology, the church was spared from the flames and the bulldozers. Its sky-blue dome still pokes up above the trees, and its pews fill with parishioners on Sundays.

“There are many different kinds of miracles,” says the church’s priest, Father Michael Hutsko. “The flash-of-lightning kind, the sick person who’s suddenly healed after praying are easy to identify. But there’s the other, not-so-evident miracles that take place, that perhaps you don’t even realize until you arrive at a certain place and say, ‘I was praying for this,’ and you realize that God’s hand is in it.”

When Centralia was settled in the 1840s, the miracle of this rugged stretch of Appalachia was the coal itself. Back then, anthracite coal—jet-black, rock hard, and clean burning—was the most powerful fuel known. Its discovery in northeast Pennsylvania triggered a gold rush of sorts. Immigrant workers poured in, and Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, and Ukrainians filled booming mining towns such as Centralia.

Built in 1911, Assumption was one of many Ukrainian Catholic churches founded in the region. Centralia’s immigrants could worship within its simple wood frame and hand-laid stone walls just as they had for centuries back home. They sang in their native tongue. They celebrated the distinctive Ukrainian Catholic Mass. They prayed beneath its three-bar crosses.

Evelyn Mushalko, an Assumption parishioner born in Centralia in 1944, remembers a town of soda fountains and penny candy stores; a town where fathers worked hard and didn’t talk much about it; a town where you went sledding in winter and huckleberry picking in summer and ran home after school to catch Roy Rogers or Dick Clark’s American Bandstand on your family’s new black-and-white TV.

“It was a good time to grow up,” she says. “It was a nice town. People were friendly.”

And then the town caught fire.

No one knows for sure how or even when in 1962 it started, but the best guess is that it was after town workers burned some trash at the local dump.

The next day, something was still burning—an exposed seam of coal. There was little worry at first; such fires are common in coal country. But Centralia’s blaze proved relentless as it fed on other coal seams and long-sealed tunnels full of broken timbers.

Slowly, the earth began to heat up and hollow out. Smoke belched from cracks in the ground. A long stretch of Route 61 buckled and crumbled, glowing red at night. Residents reported hot basement walls and noxious fumes; one was knocked unconscious while watching TV. Local and state government spent millions trying to douse the fire, without success.

Finally, on Valentine’s Day 1981, the earth buckled in Todd Domboski’s grandmother’s backyard, almost swallowing the 12-year-old whole. The fire had exposed a mineshaft hundreds of feet down. He survived by grabbing a tree root before being pulled to safety.

That was the beginning of the end for Centralia. In 1984, citing the danger to its citizens, state and federal officials began buying up properties and ordered the town evacuated. Streets were emptied. Homes were leveled. A bulldozer knocked down the Roman Catholic church, then went after the Methodists’.

churchCourtesy Father John M. Fields
The last church standing in Centralia.

But Assumption stayed. The entire property, it turned out, sat on one of the massive slabs of sandstone that forms the backbone of the region’s mountains. The stone protected the church from the burning anthracite that sat below the rest of the town.

When Father Hutsko took over Assumption in 2010, he found a building in rough shape and a small congregation badly in need of assurance. Now scattered around the region, the parishioners would drive back to Centralia every Sunday wondering, “Who keeps a church in a town that doesn’t exist anymore?”

Father Hutsko does. A Pennsylvania native, he knew the value of the church in coal-country towns. The priest and his flock dug in for the long haul. They tore down the abandoned and crumbling rectory. They fixed the roof and its blue dome. They added new siding to keep vandals out of the basement. They scrubbed their jewel until it shone.

In late 2015, the archbishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church—its patriarch—visited America and requested to see the church in the now-famous burning town. The archbishop had been entranced by the way its survival story echoed the Gospel of Matthew: “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

When he entered the tiny jewel box—with its gilt-framed paintings, its cozy pews and ornate sanctuary, its thick, soft carpet and scent of incense—the archbishop was moved to establish Assumption as the site of an annual pilgrimage.

“As soon as we went in, he was just in awe,” Hutsko remembers. “He said, ‘This is a holy place. … It has to be a place to call people to prayer.’”

FatherCourtesy Bill Hangley Jr.
Father Husko refused to abandon his flock.

At last, Assumption’s mission was clear. The church wasn’t to be just a final refuge for the scattered residents of a lost town. It was to be a symbol of hope for people of faith everywhere.

“The church had found its purpose,” Hutsko says.

Three years ago, at Assumption’s first annual pilgrimage, hundreds gathered on the church’s neatly tended lawn, the largest event in Centralia in years.

“As long as the church stands here, as long as the bells ring, that will be the voice of God calling you into his presence,” the archbishop told the pilgrims, “reminding you that he has not abandoned you, any more than he has abandoned the people of this town.”

But the pilgrimage comes only once a year. On the other Sundays, things go back to the way they’ve been for the past 107 years. The bells ring. The people of Centralia gather with their children and grandchildren, singing and praying, and, when Mass is over, sitting in the pews with coffee and doughnuts and talking.

“’Comforting’ is a good word for it. It’s like your old couch,” said Mayernick. “Everything’s peaceful.”

And for those few hours, as Mayernick and Mushalko and Father Hutsko and the others worship and chat, it won’t just be the Gospel that lives.

It will be Gert’s candy store that lives. And Bill’s pizza shop. And the sledding hill known as Rae’s, the swimming hole known as the Townie, and the music joint called the Hop where the Jordan Brothers used to play.

The fire that killed the town is still burning, but as long as the church stands, Centralia will continue to rise above the ashes. Next, read about these random acts of kindness that changed people’s lives.

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